Walls, Warts and Reflecting on Nimrod.

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Did you ever darn a sock? It’s slow-motion weaving, now consigned to history by technology and indestructible artificial fibres. There was a big cowrie shell at home, that my mother used, to get around the corners of socks. There was history in that cowrie shell. Some seafaring ancestor brought it back from his travels. You could hear the South Seas and waves breaking over the reefs of distant coral islands when you put the cowrie to your ear. Inside the reef  in all the stories, lay a lagoon, a place of calm and safety. The sharks stayed outside, in the fathomless depths of the dark waters beyond the reef. I could still darn a sock should the need arise but modern fabrics have made my skill redundant. There was great comfort in a well darned sock. I knew a man who didn’t become a hero by diving into the harbour to rescue a dog, because, as he admitted shamefacedly, he had a hole in his sock. His friend did the noble deed while he stood by, encumbering the hero with unnecessary advice. On such small things fame can hang.

This piece of wall is known as The Bay Wall. Various explanations are offered for the name, but the most likely is that the bay encompassed the town when high tide flooded the low-lying fields on the periphery. There was comfort in a good wall.  On inspection you can see that the lower part is built from uncut stone and sea cobbles. It has been darned over the centuries but the cracks return, under the weight of the years. Most of the wall has disappeared but here and there, you can see short stretches that have survived development and modernisation. Alice |McGuinness lived in a little house set into The Bay Wall.

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At the base you can see where people gathered sea-rolled cobbles and broken rock from the foreshore. They worked together, building a sense of security, safeguarding their common future. The wall has been breached over time, to allow access to gardens won from the sand and  tidal marsh. (Click images to enlarge.)

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At Holmpatrick the shadow of the original wall is visible, the work of a generation long gone. The top half is much more respectable but the lower half holds the massive rocks that speak of struggle and the work of bare hands. It has withstood the tide and easterly gales for centuries. It wears its crown of ivy with a certain panache. We have an affinity with this wall through the calcium in the bones that hold us upright.

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Cromwell, the first republican in Ireland, specialised in knocking down walls. He made a right haimes of Baldungan Castle. The remains have been darned together with cement. His cavalrymen smashed the windows in Canice’s cathedral. They depicted it seems, idolatrous images. Gunpowder and high explosives are now the tools of those who see only a bright future of their own devising. A former Minister for Local Government applauded the decay of Georgian Dublin and the great houses of  Ireland….’everything I hate about our history.’ Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution directed its venom against anything old—including old people. The Taliban destroyed ancient statues. The new Puritans, the fundamentalists, are bulldozing the ancient palaces of Nimrod and smashing their own history with sledgehammers. They are smashing everyone’s history. They post images!! Will there be a bright new future when all the old stuff has been destroyed? Every aspiring politician parrots the mantra of Change. Progress.  ‘A time to break down and a time to build…a time to love and a time to hate…a time to throw stones and a time to gather them together.’ It’s the stone throwing that worries me….and the hate.

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A friend told me how her father used to remove warts with a compound that burned off cows’ horns. If you missed, it went some way to burning off the whole hand. I decided against it. I took two of our children to see Alice McGuinness. They had developed little warts beside their eyes, no place for cow-horn remover. Alice was old and gentle. She explained that she cured warts even by post. She had treated horses for a man in Australia. All she needed was a diagram: ” They have to know exactly where the warts are.”  I didn’t ask who They were. The children listened, wide-eyed. “Is Alice a witch?” they asked afterwards. The warts disappeared and never came back. Cromwell might have done better to consult Alice about his excrescence, instead of having it immortalised by the artist, Samuel Cooper. He didn’t like the portrait at first but it grew on him. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist it.) In reality he and his dismal Puritans would more likely have burned her for being old and for knowing something they didn’t understand.

There is a bit of new wall cobbled on, where Alice’s house once stood. It’s a bit of an excrescence. It will take a few centuries for it to mellow.

By that time maybe we will have a Walmart on the site. Wide selection of socks. The march of progress.

A crash course in parenting and the Curse o’ Crummel.

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The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Our early morning alarm call is  chuck chuck chuck chuck. That means there’s a cat on the prowl, or worse still,  a magpie. Cats I understand. They are hunters, just like lions and tigers. They do an essential job in keeping down vermin. But magpies! diddly-ah dum dum diddly-ah-dum dum  With all due respects to Signor Rossini, they are conniving, thieving bastards. They spread alarm and despondency. They hunt in pairs. They wield old-style football rattles ratchet ratchet ratchet.  Even football hooligans are forbidden to carry those old wooden rattles. It was said of the Stuka dive-bomber that the worst thing about it was the sound. Similarly, bank robbers use swearing and shouting to un-nerve their victims. Swathes of parks and gardens in suburban areas and cities are devoid of songbirds. I have seen magpies take ducklings in the zoo. They soar. They spy. They strike.

Magpies arrived in Ireland in 1650, the year after Cromwell, as if the poor, heart-scalded country hadn’t had enough trouble. They were carried by an easterly gale, to Carnsore Point, in Wexford, Hieron Akron, as Ptolemy called it…the Headland of the Priests. An ill wind. It’s Wind Turbine Akron now.  My Auntie Peg, a Wexford woman, took my brother to see Cromwell’s grave—–and walk on it. I don’t imagine that she spat on it. She was not the spitting type. He told me that they tramped across it with pleasure. De mortuis nil nisi bonum Nah!  Cromwell too,  had the knack of bringing the silence of devastation to whole swathes of the country. I doubt if that bleak man took much pleasure in songbirds warbling in the branches overhead. Trees were for hanging men. Strangely, he is a hero to some people. I have never trodden on his grave but I have to admit to a certain satisfaction when I see a flattened magpie on the road, a rare occurrence. The bird was so engrossed in attending to a squished hedgehog or rat, that he failed to see his nemesis approaching. The black and white smudge can sometimes raise a wing to flap in the wind, a forlorn farewell or possibly, a final two fingers to the world.  The curse o’ Crummel on them anyway. You might suspect that I am not fond of magpies.

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The nest is at the top of that clematis. It took us by surprise. It imposed a duty of care on us. Meals have been interrupted by visits from the magpies and occasionally, the cats. Profanity helps, as any bank robber will tell you. Wildlife documentary makers assert that you do not intervene. We learned that lesson fifty years ago, when we rescued an abandoned blackbird chick. We fed and sheltered it until it fledged and flew around our sitting room spattering the furniture with Stuka precision. It came to our whistle and perched on a shoulder. We released it into the garden but, sadly, there were feathers on the lawn in the morning. It hadn’t learned the fear necessary for survival.

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This little fellow was the first to venture from the nest. He crash-landed. I put him back again, against all the rules. ‘Feck that,’ he said and dived out again. He took refuge in shrubbery , where his parents found him. They have fed him constantly for days but now they have become somewhat impatient. It’s a steep learning curve for a chick. He has made it to the top of a fuschia bush. He flies like Buzz Lightyear… falling with style, but he is getting the hang of it.

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Wildlife photographers wouldn’t approve of my photography either. The lighting and focus are all wrong. He looks decidedly disgruntled but he has achieved something great. We think that we hear his sibling in a neighbouring garden. A third chick became a dusting of feathers on the lawn on a dewy morning. It’s a harsh world out there. We thought that our parenting years were behind us, that our chicks had all flown the nest, but this little fellow brought some of that parental anxiety back again. Good luck to him and to his brave and exemplary parents.

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Who is this however? Where did he come from? A baby sparrow, apparently abandoned. There are no parents in evidence. Here we go again.

Baldungan Castle, Skerries, Cromwell and Plastered Priests

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From the top of this castle you can see five counties: Dublin, Meath, Down, Louth, Wicklow. Or is it seven? Westmeath, Kildare? As small boys, our Geography was not too accurate. There were some who argued for nine. Anyway, you can see a lot of counties. That was the reason for building it where it is or rather, where it was. The original castle covered a large area. What remains is the shell of the castle church. Old engravings show two towers and some shards of the outer wall. The number of counties is now an academic argument. Young lads can no longer climb the spiral stairs to the top and argue about their world view, due to a steel gate and health and safety considerations. In our day, if you fell off, it was ‘on your own head be it.’ When you looked down, the castle whirled. When you looked up from below, it toppled constantly against the background of flying cloud.

I literally tremble to think of how we walked around the open square at the top. That was before vertigo and stiffness in the joints; before good sense took all the thrill out of doing stupid things. We were on level pegging with the birds. The last time I climbed to the top I had some of my children with me. They thought it was a great place. I could not stand upright. My legs shook uncontrollably. I ushered them all downstairs. The gate put an end to any further expeditions. It’s great when you are prevented from doing the thing you dread, by circumstances outside your control. Remember how the lad in For Whom the Bells Toll prayed for rain so that he would not have to be the bravest again, on the day of the bull running.

The jackdaws own the castle now. The empty joist holes provide desirable residences with spectacular views. There is usually a dusting of jackdaws circling around, particularly in the busy nesting season. I remember the toe-holds where you could climb up to peer into the nests. These crevices have been re-pointed, so that pleasure is gone. Twigs and straw still accumulate inside, concealing secret passages and entrances to subterranean passages. Of late, some of the larger raptor birds have put in an appearance, soaring lazily on the thermals, picking out their scurrying evening meal far below.

Secret passages! Aha! Dan Brown could easily squeeze 2,000 pages of twaddle out of Baldungan Castle. Did it not belong to The Templars at one time? Did they not come in secret through the Smugglers’ Cave at Loughshinny, crawling the mile or two on bended knees, (with sharpened bicycle chains around their thighs), emerging through a concealed entrance in the castle to plot yet another futile Middle-Eastern War? Did they not lay out the plan of the castle as a pentangle to guard against the evil descendants of the Merovingians, King Pippin and the deeply sinister Granny Smith?

Eh, no. The Templars owned literally thousands of castles, granges, manors and villages all over Christendom, willed to them by devout people to finance their Crusades. They had more money than God. They excited the envy of kings. The Crusades failed and the Templars became redundant. The kings snaffled their wealth. Are the Templars still out there, pulling the strings of government and the Church, running our banks, listening to our phone conversations, dining in the best restaurants, manipulating the media? Eh, no. They are certainly not up in Baldungan Castle. Cromwell rendered it uninhabitable.

The castle appears to have been built from Loughshinny stone. The folded cliffs fragment into regular blocks, ideal for building castles. Mortar enough of them together and you have a castle that can command five, seven or nine counties, (depending on which small boy can shout the loudest). I remember the old mortar with the horsehair still binding it. Now it has been replaced with cement. Lichens of all types adorn the stone, evidence of clean, healthy air. I recall two tall fragments of wall, each as high as the surviving tower. They swayed in the wind. One fell down, after eight hundred weary years of keeping watch. The farmer asked permission to brace the other one and make it safe. He was refused on the grounds that it was a national monument. He asked permission to knock it down and remove the risk. He was refused on the same grounds. It fell down, one stormy night. Ideal Templar conspiracy weather. Maybe it had been undermined by the Templars to block the entrance to their treasure chamber. Rule nothing out.

In 1649 Cromwell arrived. He ‘sat down before the castle’ and ‘reduced it ‘ by artillery. We believed that he tortured all the priests and plastered them into the walls, before moving on to ‘sit down before Drogheda.’ We looked for plaster with priest-shaped bumps in it. There was never any plaster in Baldungan. The priests must have got plastered somewhere else. Bit of a let-down in a way. It wouldn’t have made much of a headline.SHOCK>HORROR! NO PRIESTS PLASTERED IN BALDUNGAN CASTLE> Cromwell’s work is still evident all around. The soil is full of stone from the castle. Gate pillars and field boundaries show Baldungan stone. Cromwell’s name is still invoked as a curse in Ireland: ‘The curse o’ Crummel on it.’ Strange to see him honoured as a republican in monarchical Britain and reviled in republican Ireland. The historian, Michael Wood, in a BBC documentary, asked a young schoolgirl in Drogheda, what she knew about Cromwell. ‘ A bit of a b***** really, wasn’t he?’ she replied after some thought. Say no more.

The farmer’s straw gleams like Templar gold. The sun shines through the filigree wall. The clouds still fly overhead. The fields stretch away to the misty mountains. The birds still circle. Baldungan Castle still holds its ancient air of mystery.

“After a while I heard someone climbing the stairs and eventually a woolly hat emerged, followed by Kate Sheehy, red in the face and panting. The tip of her nose shone brightly, a sign of health, in dogs at least. Snowflakes clung to the wool of her hat, where my brothers had momentarily forgotten the deference due to ladies, or maybe, I reasoned later, they had been paying her the oblique compliments of the inarticulate. She drew in a deep breath and laughed.
‘That’s a terrible climb. It always gives me cramps in the legs.’
She stamped on the little platform and the snow squeaked under her boots. ‘Have you been up here long?’
‘A good while,’I said.’It’s quite a sight isn’t it?’
She looked around, turning slowly through three hundred and sixty degrees, taking in the whole scene. A tremor passed through her body, possibly from the biting wind.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she said softly after a while,’so clean, almost untouched.’
I followed her gaze to where the distant hedgerows foreshortened to become a black forest, standing out starkly against the dazzling white.
‘Imagine living here,’ I interjected. ‘Think of the feeling of power, looking down on everyone.’
‘They must have been very frightened all the time, to build such high walls.’
I had never thought of it that way.
‘Thomas de Barneville,’ she said. ‘Did you ever hear tell of him? He built this as his stronghold.’
‘Vaguely,’ I answered, peeved. I was supposed to be the expert.
‘He built this place, all right. He took the land from the Seagraves, Norsemen.’ ”

On Borrowed Ground. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Wolfhound Press.
Available from Chaos Press, hb and pb at chaospress@eircom.net